By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security
This past Sunday, The New York Times reported that the Obama administration issued a warning to China stating that Beijing must remove all undercover agents from the U.S. who are chasing Chinese officials charged with corruption.
The effort to repatriate fugitives from Chinese justice has been an ongoing effort dubbed Operation Foxhunt and has been a central part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive, but there are political motives involved as well. Granted, the U.S. and China have had covert operations and operatives engaged in their respective nations, yet the call to remove undercover operatives of the Ministry of Public Security – China’s internal security service – seems a bit out of sorts.
Given the universal disdain for corruption among political officials this is doubly so, thus leading one to believe that something must have triggered Washington’s ire. No nation enjoys having undercover operatives from a foreign nation operating on their soil, but in this case the targets are not U.S. citizens or U.S. interests, thus leading one to believe that something must have transpired to force the White House to issue such an extraordinary warning. According to Beijing, the U.S. is the top destination for officials accused of graft, and though the U.S. is open to increased law enforcement cooperation with China the evidence needed to support the accusations against some of these former officials is lacking. The U.S. also has concerns over China’s human rights record when it comes to extradition, but the lack of Washington’s cooperation in China’s anticorruption drive may be more fundamental. It’s possible that some of these fugitives may be supplying intelligence to the U.S.
As previously mentioned, China and the U.S. aggressively collect intelligence on each other using all available methods. Though the operations are covert their existence is well established, but covert law enforcement operations are a bit different in that they target an individual or group allegedly engaging in criminal activity. China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) is primarily engaged in national level police work, though they do conduct domestic counterintelligence operations often in conjunction with the China’s foreign intelligence arm, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), or the People’s Liberation Army 2nd Department Military Intelligence. Both the MSS and the 2nd Department have run agents and operations in the U.S. for espionage purposes. The MPS, on the other hand, deals with political fugitives, such as operation Foxhunt, but they also work organized crime and have played a role in monitoring political dissidents domestically and abroad.
In 2008, Chinese MPS agents were observed conducting surveillance on anti-China protests in the U.S. during the run up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. It is possible that the Chinese allegations against these fugitive officials are indeed legitimate; however the U.S. will still request that the MPS operations go through proper channels and that Beijing supply the evidence necessary to secure U.S. cooperation. China’s refusal to follow traditional protocol certainly raises concerns over actual motive. Thus far, China has only supplied a list of 100 suspects accused of political corruption, but they did provide the U.S. directly with a much longer list. That said, a list of names isn’t necessarily evidential.
This raises the question as to why China would provide a list to Interpol and the U.S., but go through the process of engaging in covert activity on U.S. soil as a means to secure these alleged fugitives. China and the U.S. do not have an extradition agreement largely because of Washington’s concerns regarding human rights – a factor that may have played a role in Beijing’s decision to go it alone, but there is also the political turmoil in China to consider. High level officials such as Zhou Yongkang, a retired standing committee member and former domestic security chief, was arrested in April of this year on charges of corruption. Many on the wanted list provided by Beijing are mid-level officials, but Zhou held a high rank in the party. It is possible that president Xi is still looking to consolidate power; however there are signs of a wider struggle.
Just last week, Chinese state media warned retired officials to avoid political meddling and using their previous connections for personal gain. This warning came shortly after the government alluded to canceling the annual meeting of retired officials at Beidaihe. These annual meetings act more like a steering committee for policy, but with Xi reportedly canceling the event it appears as if he’s trying to cull undue influence both through his anti-corruption campaign and through populist measures.
Xi has a need to centralize authority more toward his office and away from old party hands. The reason largely stems from the faltering Chinese economy and public dissatisfaction with the government. Indeed, the public is already holding demonstrations over the government’s handling of the recent explosion in Tianjin that killed over a 100 people. But there’s more to it. Xi cannot make the changes necessary to right the Chinese economic ship, nor ensure that domestic stability remains unless he makes some significant policy changes. He simply cannot do that with so many hardliners still influencing policy. Furthermore, many of those that seek to maintain the status quo do so for personal gain. Xi needs to undo this, but he can only do so by fundamentally rewriting how the party functions and he must institute more market reforms, or so the thinking goes.
If Xi is successful in his campaign, then it’s conceivable that he, not the party, will be the pinnacle of Chinese politics – something that hasn’t occurred since Mao himself stepped down. China is facing a crisis that runs much deeper than the problems visible on the surface. It has now gone from a nation facing an economic problem to a nation facing a fundamental political crisis. Xi cannot purge every ranking figure that stands in opposition, nor can he implement the necessary policy changes without fundamental political change. This brings us back to the aggressive covert operation to force fugitive officials to return to China. Xi needs leverage wherever he can get it and dismantling the networks of his political foes is one such way to gain that leverage.
It’s important to note that Xi’s changes are not those of a president that is acting as a reformer. This isn’t a liberalizing versus a conservative issue; rather this is a structural problem. China’s hyper espionage is born out of this problem and operation Foxhunt is no different. It’s also worth noting that China can correct this problem and ultimately survive this crisis. Under communist rule, China has survived the Korean War, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Though the dynamics of this current crisis are quite different, it is not yet existential, but Xi’s options are limited. For now Xi will continue down his current path, but it’s important to look for more high ranking officials purged from office. Further moves of that nature would likely act as a bellwether of a deteriorating situation.